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Fantasia Fest Review: 'Survival Skills' takes you back

You might not be 'wowed', but you'll be entertained.

Jim and Jenny in 'Survival Skills'
(Image: © Fantasia International Film Festival)

Our Verdict

An interesting overlay on a familiar package.

For

  • 👮🏻‍♂️Questions justice vs. morality.
  • 👮🏻‍♂️Solid 80s vibe.

Against

  • 👮🏻‍♂️Not always sure what it's trying to say.

Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills is a peculiar film. It’s adequately made, to be sure, and there’s something to be said for the 80s safety guide style of yore. The performances are all solid as well, but it seems like a film that’s not quite sure what it’s trying to say. It may be a victim of timing, as well. A Pleasantville style cop just wanting to do what’s right isn’t really something anyone’s looking for right now, but let’s take a look at it outside of our current political spectrum. 

Based off Armstrong’s 2017 short of the same name, Survival Skills follows Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) as he navigates life as the subject of an 80s safety video. The film’s narrated by Stacy Keach, whose character is simply called “The Narrator”, as is the custom for such films. Narrator, well… narrates Jim’s experience as a rookie cop. Jim is joined by his partner, Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz) and his similarly Pleasantville-fied girlfriend, Jenny (Tyra Colar). Jenny is doting and likes to make jam. Allison is embittered by the system of which she is governed. Meanwhile, Jim just wants to be the very best cop that he can be. 

A wrench is thrown in this plan on Jim’s very first day. When he and his partner are called to the scene of a domestic violence dispute, Jim is immediately introduced to the limits of the law. When victim Leah Jenning (Emily Chisolm) and daughter Lauren (Madeline Anderson) decline to say anything about their abuse, Allison and Jim are forced to take a statement and depart.

But Jim can’t quite wrap his head around that.

The conversation about what’s legal and what’s right is by far the most interesting thing about Survival Skills. We will see Jim grapple with this specific case throughout the film (whose timeline spans a little over a year). He’ll endanger his relationships, his career, and his life in an attempt to bring this one case to justice. While we’ve certainly seen “cop goes rogue to do what he believes is right” approximately eleventy billion times, Survival Skills does manage to put some interesting clothes on an otherwise worn-out narrative. 

Keach and O’Donnell are unquestioningly the shining points of the film. The Narrator becomes all the more frustrated as Jim maintains his 60s suburbia demeanor but starts to go “off-book” more and more frequently. The two are followed closely by Colar’s Jenny who isn’t given much to do but shines bright when she’s given scenes to play with. 

Everything about Survival Skills is very capable. There was nothing that knocked me off my feet, but I can see how this will play well with certain crowds. Particularly those who like the conversation of morality vs. justice, and even moreso for the folks who dig the fact that there’s no real quick answer how to proceed when the system fails the victim.